OK, this one’s gonna get a little esoteric, I admit. But it’s a serious question: What are the real world origins of orcs? What cultures and peoples define them?
The orc begins with Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The Hobbit gets goblins, but no orcs.) While it’s never been explicitly stated by Tolkien (as far as I can see) there is a strong line of criticism that the orc was based around African culture and identify. Dr Stephen Shapiro descibred the orcs in Lord of the Rings as “a black mass that doesn’t speak the languages and are desecrating the cathedrals.”
Is this true? It’s debatable. I’m not a huge fan of Lord of the Rings (I can see my fantasy street cred evaporating in front of me as we speak) but overall, I don’t see it. Framing the Fellowship in white and the orcs as dark has a good vs. evil logic that is not dependent on racism. (Unless you want to argue that Star Wars is racist too.) That said, the question is: Was this line of thought in Blizzard’s mind as they created the Warcraft orcs? Because unlike in Tolkien, here the African elements, and even the African-American elements are seriously in play.
Consider: The orcs are a disposed people coming out of a legacy of slavery. They live within a tribalistic society, and their iconography has a distinctly African influence. While I’m of two minds regarding Durotar, their starting zone (it reminds me as much of Utah as Africa), their second questing zone, The Barrens, is impossibly, undeniably African in quality. Their shamanistic religion is again designed to mirror the sense of an Afro-centric design. And, less seriously, the /dance animations for both the male and female orcs have African-American origins.
What’s striking about all of this is that from Warcraft III to World of Warcraft, the orcs are portrayed in an unflinchingly strong light. While Blizzard are certainly guilty of racial stereotyping for other races (the voodoo elements of the Trolls are clearly, and deliberately, drawn more from pulp stereotype than fact) the orcs are portrayed so positively that arguing racism seems faintly absurd. If Tolkien’s orcs were racist, then Warcraft’s are liberated from those racist elements. And even if Tolkien’s weren’t, you can make a very strong case for the orcs as a strong African image.
So what? What does this mean for me as a role-player? That if I choose an orc, I’m progressive or something? If nothing else, as Jess has pointed out to me, the orcs have as much Spartan in them as African. (Via way of Klingon, to my way of seeing it.)
Well, no. But what it does mean is that for your orcish concepts can draw heavily on African mythology and it shouldn’t feel out of place. Study up on Shango and weave the stories into why you wield lightning as an orcish shaman. Study up on African heroes of folklore and myth and search for concepts there. Don’t name specific creatures, heroes or gods. That would be bringing the real world into Warcraft. But study the structures, and find your inspiration there. There’s a wealth of material to be had for orcs in that mix.